From the Archives: Tesla is a postmodern biopic befitting its subject

From the Archives: Tesla is a postmodern biopic befitting its subject

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Watching Tesla I was reminded of two films from earlier this year: Shirley and Capone. Much like these two alt-biopics, Tesla aims to avoid trappings of the genre by playing loose with facts and focusing on big characters instead of big events.  One area where a Tesla differs, however, is in scope. The film encapsulates much of the famed inventor’s life span, jumping settings regularly rather than focusing on a single place and time. To put it simply, it’s about the lifelong passion that Tesla had for his biggest inventions, and the many difficulties he had making them come to life.

Nikola Tesla was a troubled man, to say the least, and certainly not the most affable advocate for his considerable imagination, so the film finds a more compelling narrator in Anne Morgan, daughter of big spender J.P. Morgan. Anne (Eve Hewson) sits in the now abandoned laboratory of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), regaling us with tales from the inventor’s life, as well as stats and photographs from Google. Yes, Anne Morgan (1873-1952) has a laptop, an internet connection, and a knowledge of how a search engine works. She explains that while there are many photographs of Thomas Edison available online, a search for a photo of Nikola Tesla brings back only half the results. Of those results there are really only four individual photos amongst them. I ran this experiment after the movie and she’s right, although I was surprised to see a handful of photos of Tesla as an old man. Something about them freaked me out.

This strange intersection with modern technology is a streak that runs through the entire film. Every once in a while the narrative takes a flight of fancy, like when a disagreement between Tesla and Edison ends with a stoic ice cream fight, or when a strobe light flickers and modern club music plays diegetically during the party entrance of famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). While attention is never called to the idiosyncrasies, our narrator occasionally reminds us that it “didn’t happen this way.” Be it an impossible piece of technology or a conversation between Edison and Tesla that simply didn’t occur, these odd intrusions successfully invoke in the audience an interrogation of Tesla’s influence. How many individual pieces of my phone rely on an idea from his noggin? How many unfathomable concepts did he manifest into reality that, while nothing short of sorcery at the time, are things I take for granted?


Some formal choices add to the heightened feel of the film, such as the purposefully obvious use of miniatures and both digital and painted backdrops, as well as short documentary montages to connect the jumps in time. The period design at large is as accurate as I can tell (it certainly feels right), but there’s a contemporary energy—mischievous even—that alleviates the inherent stuffiness of the era.

Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as a passionate but meek man, borderline mad and totally aware of it. He’s awkward, but it’s easy to see why those around him find him so compelling, even if his genius hinders his ability to be social. Hawke’s recognizable face is an asset here. If this film is a study of Tesla’s inability to present his damn near magical feats of science like a true showman, how perfect for the face of a superstar to be hiding behind timid eyes and a gaudy mustache? There are nods to Tesla’s sexuality as well, but they live in the periphery of the film, as they likely would in the receptive eyes of the woman narrating his life. When the aforementioned Sarah Bernhardt (portrayed by a scene stealing Rebecca Dayan) makes a bold move, Tesla is ice cold. No sparks.

That’s an electricity joke.

With Edison, played here by a ferocious Kyle MacLachlan, we get the opposite. A consummate showman whose desire to be great in a classic “industrious man” sense, but who has no grasp of the wonder that drives innovation. MacLachlan makes Edison likable, even when we’re aware of his deviousness. He’s a salesman who would much rather sell an inferior thing well than admit to making an inferior thing in the first place.

Kyle MacLachlan also heartily enjoys some pie, if you’re into that sort of thing. Unfortunately he did not have a damn fine cup of coffee with it.

While not an anti-capitalist movie outright, there are some nods to the limitations that profit can place on productivity. Tesla is warned that it’s hard to quantify AC, therefore it’s tough to sell. He sees it differently. He’s certainly well aware of the profit potential, but hardly concerned with such things.

“That motor will do the work of the world. It will set men free,” he opines, dreaming of a time when people, unburdened with menial labor, can devote their time to personal and societal betterment.

The film crescendos with a performance feat that, even just for weirdness’ sake, needs to be seen. As goofy as it looks on the surface, it drives home the thematic concerns with a deceptive strength. I won’t describe it, since part of the impact is how off the wall it is, but I guarantee there will be memes. Perhaps enough for Tesla’s Google results to finally eclipse Edison’s.

Also, Jim Gaffigan shows up, and I am convinced that one day he is going to make an excellent Santa.

Tesla is now available for digital rental.

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